Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | East Asia

Japan’s Prime Minister Meets Top South Korean Official, Raising Hopes for Thaw

PM Suga met with Seoul’s National Intelligence Service director, a rare bilateral exchange amid strained relations.

By Mari Yamaguchi for
Japan’s Prime Minister Meets Top South Korean Official, Raising Hopes for Thaw

A woman walks past an advertisement featuring Japanese and South Korean flags at a shop in Shin Okubo area in Tokyo Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide met with South Korea’s top intelligence official on Tuesday in a sign of a thaw in relations between the two countries, but maintained that South Korea should take the initiative in resolving their dispute over compensation for Japanese World War II actions.

National Intelligence Service Director Park Jie-won arrived in Tokyo over the weekend and met with top officials of Suga’s governing party and government.

Suga thanked Park for traveling to Tokyo despite the coronavirus, and told him that Japan-South Korea relations, as well as mutual cooperation with their joint ally, the United States, are “indispensable” in dealing with issues such as North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats, his office said in a statement.

Suga said South Korea should initiate moves to improve their ties, which have been severely strained over South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation over abuse of Korean laborers during World War II.

Animosity over their colonial past has deepened in the last few years, worrying the United States, which wants a strong trilateral alliance in the Asia-Pacific amid China’s growing influence and North Korea’s nuclear threat.

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Park told reporters that “I delivered Prime Minister Suga our opinions (on the issue of wartime Korean laborers) sufficiently. Leaders of both South Korea and Japan agree on the necessity of resolving this issue, and I think we can well resolve this through talks.”

Suga, who took office nearly two months ago after the resignation of his predecessor, Abe Shinzo, due to ill health, also urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in in telephone talks in September to take steps in the forced labor dispute to restore healthy relations.

Japan maintains that all wartime compensation issues were settled by a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic relations and that the South Korean rulings violate international law. Bitter South Korean memories of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula have been a recurring strain on bilateral ties.

Historians say Japan used about 220,000 forced Korean laborers during the war. Japan says not all were forced to work.

The dispute spilled over into trade and defense cooperation between the two countries during the leadership of Abe, known for a nationalistic ideology and attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime actions that repeatedly offended South Korea and China. Some experts hope that relations will improve under Suga, who is seen as less nationalistic.

While known for his political prowess on domestic issues, Suga’s diplomatic skills are still largely unknown, though he is expected to pursue Abe’s priorities. Suga inherits a range of international challenges, including balancing relations with China in the face of U.S.-China disputes over trade and other issues.

Suga, during his meeting with Park, also sought South Korea’s support in resolving the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea decades ago.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu said Park met with governing Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Nikai Toshihiro on Sunday, adding that they are old friends. Park also met with his Japanese counterpart, National Security Secretariat chief Kitamura Shigeru, on Monday. Details of their talks were not released.

By Mari Yamaguchi for the Associated Press in Tokyo, Japan. Associated Press videojournalist Jung-yoon Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.